From The 'Lectric Law Library's Stacks AUTOMOTIVE RELATED CLAIMS - Follow the Trail - by Allan A. McLean *
Let me tell you something. As we were walking around in the store, Marilyn and I were just really impressed by all the novelties and the different types of little things that you could get for Christmas. And all the people that would help you, they were dressed up in things that said 'I believe in Santa Claus.' And the only thing that I could think is that I believe in George Bush. -- Vice President Dan Quayle at a garden center and produce store in Baltimore (from the Los Angeles Times, Douglas Jehl, November 6, 1988)
In cases involving motor vehicles of any type, there is in almost all cases, a clear and extremely fruitful paper trail available. The source of this information is the manufacturer of the vehicle and/or the component in dispute. This data is not furnished on a voluntary basis, of course, but a consultant with knowledge of the inner workings of the manufacturers organization and procedures can elicit valuable information. In many instances this paper trail will point very clearly to a product problem or "concern" in the manufacturers vernacular. This information can include: Product Standards, Design Criteria, Testing Results, Failure Reports, Warranty Statistics, Accident Investigation Reports.
In order for the interrogatory to be fruitful, these sources must be properly varied and directed. In addition, there is an ever increasing number of governmental regulations and studies. These agencies as well as other quasi-governmental groups compile a wealth of accident/failure statistics.
Couple these sources of information with a consultant knowledgeable in vehicle design, manufacture, operation, and failure analysis and you will provide your client with the best possible representation.
I have written previously about the enormous amount of paper generated by automobile, truck and motorcycle manufacturers. This trail properly followed, can lead to a gold mine of information for a plaintiff's attorney representing someone injured due to a manufacturing or design defect.
The same is true of a second paper trail of government data that should also be mined. This source is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This agency is charged with collecting data on motor vehicle failures, recalls, service bulletins, owner/litigant complaint letters, compliance tests and a variety of other information. This is a true gold mine of information that is virtually irrefutable, as it comes from a neutral and impeccable source, the US government. Incidentally, it is claimed that there are no "secret" warranties - that they are all expressed in bulletin form. This is technically correct, but these sources are somewhat obscure to vehicle owners and the information can be shaded somewhat. Here are some suggestions to guide you on this trail:
1. Make your inquiry directly from your law firm rather than through an investigator or an expert so it becomes your work product and not subject to discovery (so you can reveal your information at a time of your choice).
2. Inquire early, the government works at a very relaxed pace, and cannot be rushed. Send correspondence to:
400 7th Street SW
Washington, DC 20590
Fax transmission to: 202-366-7990.
3. Your inquiry should be phrased in the broadest terms possible. Do not ask for alternator fires on a 1992 Cougar for example, but ask for engine/electrical fires on 1989 through 1994 (the model run) Thunderbird/Cougar (the vehicle family). The broader inquiry gets considerably more information, especially with GM as a car family may run through six model lines.
4. Your request must include a promise to pay (when billed) for search time at the rate of $20.00 to $40.00 per hour - normally, this will not exceed one hour.
5. Ask specifically for vehicle owner reports, service bulletins, recalls, defect investigations and compliance test reports as available.
6. Telephone inquiries are generally ignored and follow up calls will not help.
This writer is available to help with your inquiry direction and case evaluation if needed.
Information from NHTSA can help your case immeasurably. We recall one recent matter in which a major manufacturer claimed knowledge of only one reported failure. NHTSA's report yielded forty one instances of this same failure with names of owners, models and locations.
* Mr. McLean is retired from Ford Motor Company where he participated in the defense of automotive claims for a great many years. He is totally free from allegiance and/or commitments to the automotive industry, and serves as a consultant and expert witness for attorneys throughout the US.